starring Sam Worthington, Zoë Saldana, Stephen Lang, Sigourney Weaver
written and directed by James Cameron
by Walter Chaw A morally, historically, socially, and politically childish amalgam of Pocahontas and Ferngully: The Last Rainforest, Avatar finds James Cameron--still the Cameron of Titanic (or the uncomfortably simpering T2, if we're honest with ourselves) rather than the Cameron of Aliens and The Terminator--trying his hand at being Kevin Costner: powerful, dim, and only relevant for a tiny window of time he doesn't realize has already closed. The more simple-minded liberal proselytizing he perpetrates like Avatar, the farther away he gets from the B-movie muscularity that indicated his early career. It's a bad thing, believe me, that the first set of movies people think to compare your latest to is first George Lucas's ridiculous prequel trilogy--then Dances with Wolves.
Like Lucas, Cameron's made the fatal error of writing his own screenplay, larding it with gut-busters like "Pandora will make Hell seem like R&R!" whilst recasting Native Americans as giant blue cats and Sam Worthington as the Next Big Has-Been (see: Cameron's failed attempts to shove Michael Biehn down America's throat). Cameron's long-awaited reunion with Sigourney Weaver isn't another Alien flick, but this thing with Ripley recast as do-gooder scientist Dr. Grace, battling the bellicose military over the soul of the Noble Savages inhabiting a verdant planet. Man is here, see, to harvest priceless ore "Unobtainium" (seriously--if you're that committed to being retarded, why not call it "Cantgetitanywhereium," or "Itsrareium"?) with a band of mercenaries at the beck of Cameron's evil, monolithic Company, led by pressed-shirt Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi). We're not far now from naming someone "General Grievous," are we? Dr. Grace has developed the titular Avatar program, which breeds giant blue cats that are then electronically linked with human drivers--the better to freak out learn the ways of the natives and win their hearts and minds. A shame that jarhead Jake (Worthington) falls in love with giant blue cat Neytiri (Zoë Saldana, doing voice and MoCap duties), fucks her under the Spirit Tree upon becoming a member of The People (the Na'vi), and switches sides to repulse the human spoilers after taming a dragon, fulfilling a primitive prophecy, and earning the Indians' fealty. Stupid Indians.
Of course the military, led by muscle-bound Duke Nukem manqué Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang), doesn't understand the beauty of the Na'vi culture nor the bumfuddling sanctity of nature, and of course Selfridge doesn't care that the Na'vi's village is housed in a mystical tree that's growing over the largest concentration of unobtainium in the known universe. What you should care about is that Cameron has essentially retold the Pocahontas story with giant blue cats subbing for the Powhatan and every single Native American stereotype subbing for taste. (Jar Jar isn't speaking Jamaican! He's an alien!) The Na'vi, it seems, are literally in tune with their Mother Earth, use little feelers in their tails to again literally commune with their horses, and engage in brutal spiritual rituals in order to Man Called Horse whitey into their inner ranks. Fans of oaters will also be pleased to check off: the presence of a Magua-type character who doesn't like Jake very much because paleface is making eyes at his squaw; the noble chief who takes shrapnel; the witch woman making witchy pronouncements; and the moment when Captain Smith makes good by conquering a savage superstition and henceforth rallies his clan with the horse-cats of the plains and the fierce water-cats of the north. Because this is a Cameron joint, you also have a tough-talking Latina and a bunch of scary-looking mechas; and because this is a late-Cameron joint, there's unfortunately a lot of stuff about how humans destroyed their own planet out of greed, how the misguided men must fight "terror with terror" by employing "some kind of shock and awe," and how naïve an intellectually-limited billionaire filmmaker sounds when trying to force himself into some kind of relevant conversation.
The real hell of this 160-minute marathon is that it's shot well, edited brilliantly, paced with heat and wisdom, and yet undone at its end by its reliance on the same old shit--on stale outrage (Bush Jr. lied to get us into Iraq? Well, gorsh!) and tired paternalism. This exact thing was done better, and with infinitely more scabrous self-awareness, in an episode of "Futurama" called "Where the Buggalo Roam"--a sad thing to say about a film that took ten years and a medium-sized country's GDP to bring to fruition. Even the special effects, though, have the scrolling, smooth quality of a Pixar feature without the commensurate command of storytelling and almost mystical contact with the zeitgeist. An extended sequence of Jake exploring this wonderland, Pandora, has him tripping luminescent moss in a deeply sad--and probably unintentional--homage to Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" video, while elsewhere, Cameron inserts the (literal) deus ex machina in floating forest spirits plucked from Miyazaki's cutting-room floor. It isn't much better than the faux-wow of Ferngully, clarifying the truism that cutting-edge F/X, if not married to a thematically-strong, well-written framework, result in ferociously-defended pieces of camp-classic drag bullshit like Tron and Willow.
Worth mentioning is that Avatar, along with end-of-aughts brothers like Precious, The Blind Side, Invictus, Transformers 2, et al, demonstrates that the United States remains incapable of dealing directly with race in its mainstream, prestige entertainments in any way save for the obvious, pandering, sometimes condescending, sometimes just bigoted, always ignorant, and, it almost goes without saying, tediously offensive. In defense of Avatar, it's probably the best Cameron can do with regards to discussing the Native American genocide--that is, replicate the Trail of Tears as space cats evicted from their burning tree and showcase them chanting to the Great Mother to save the soul of the white man, then hijack history to show the beset-upon, oil-rich nation triumphing over its evil exploiters. It's The New World, but the Powhatan succeed in repulsing the Colonists. It's so confused about itself, with its Princess Mononoke rebellion of Nature subtext married to its wampum-for-Manhattan outrage, that despicable Colonel Quaritch snarls at Jake at one point, "What does it feel like to betray your own...race?" It's pitiable. At least Avatar, while displaying the same racial insensitivity and tin ear as Titanic, is unlikely to pollute the culture to the same extent or for anywhere near the same duration as Titanic. Watch the recent "South Park" satire of it ("Dances with Smurfs"), created without first-hand knowledge of the film at a miniscule fraction of its budget, to see the poor, benighted thing punched square in the babymaker.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers This review is pointless: The Avatar Blu-ray has already broken every sales record it can break; if anybody's on the fence about picking it up, it's not because they're waiting on a critic's blessing but because they either don't like the movie or are holding out for the version with all the bells and whistles--3-D, potentially, among them. Indeed, I felt kind of silly peeling the shrink-wrap off my copy, which arrived from Fox a sarcastic-feeling 18 days after Avatar streeted, and I truly have nothing to add to the chorus of praise: The THX-certified disc looks and sounds divine. I saw the film theatrically in squareish IMAX 3D, thus I found James Cameron's decision to transfer the film at 1.78:1 instead of 2.35:1 unobjectionable. And I personally don't feel short-changed by the drop down to 2-D, any more than I do by the decrease in the scale of the thing. (I've always found 3-D to have a dwarfing effect on the IMAX screen, anyway, so Avatar never seemed that much more modestly-scaled on my 46" LCD.)
If the CGI comes across a bit less "photorealistically" without the extra smoke-and-mirrors supplied by polarized glasses and the electronic artifacts of an IMAX blow-up, it's also a hell of a lot more vivid and detailed, this 1080p rendition revealing startling subtleties in the character animation like pores and chapped lips. That the backdrops bear a closer resemblance to matte paintings now hardly flies in the face of cinematic convention besides. The image reflects its HD origins by being grain-free but doesn't have an egregiously digital sheen, while the attendant 5.1 DTS-HD track is astonishingly--albeit, again, predictably--robust. Avatar's playful, powerful mix may have been snubbed by the Academy, but its showroom immortality will be richly deserved. Although there are no advertised supplements, let the end credits play through and you'll be treated to an awesomely-loud THX logo. (I suspect they tagged it onto the movie (where it would normally precede the feature) in order to present it in DTS.) The retail DVD release of the film is also included inside the keepcase packaging. Originally published: May 17, 2010.